Are Lawyers Acting Like Elderly Aunts?

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

A few months ago my 81 year old aunt asked me to help her with emails on her laptop. She had finally succumbed to years of pressure from family members to get a computer.  Now she could be included more in the family conversations and picture swapping. She could easily keep in touch with loved ones across the country.  But she still wasn’t using her laptop.

When I sat down with her, I discovered two main problems. First, she didn’t really understand some very basic concepts, like how the mouse worked. She had trouble remembering that she needed to point and click. Second, the interface was unfriendly to an elderly person. She couldn’t keep up with where the mouse pointed, and kept losing the cursor when it zipped across the screen. With a few adjustments, I slowed down the reactivity of her mouse and made the cursor bigger and bolder so her old eyes could keep up with it. Then I “co-piloted” with her as she sent some emails, gently reminding her what to do, until she had enough practice to fly on her own.

Now that her confusion has been reduced, she has taken an active interest in reading and sending emails. She’s progressing, but her emails still look like they were typed by a drunk. She has a long way to go to catch up.

Lawyers or Little Old Ladies

If lawyers in your firm keep resisting technology, soon they will be like my aunt…left out of the conversation, and so far behind that they can’t catch up. As rapidly as technology evolves, that could happen faster than they realize. That can be disastrous for the whole firm, as clients migrate to the firms that take advantage of technology to provide better, more cost-effective service.

Recently Pam Woldow wrote a nice piece called You Can’t Make Lawyers into Techies: 3 Lessons About LPM regarding the challenges of getting lawyers to start using the law firm’s Legal Project Management software.  I commend it to you. The same admonitions can be made about getting lawyers to use that other kind of LPM software:  Law Practice Management.

The Pain of Changing

To get wide-spread adoption of new technology by lawyers, the interface must be extremely user-friendly, with readily apparent benefits. Many technologies lack one or the other. When one bills at an hourly rate, there is not enough incentive in the promise of increased efficiency to warrant the pain of a learning curve. To most lawyers, their current method works smoothly enough. That’s a big part of the problem in getting seasoned attorneys to get on the bandwagon with new technology.

Psychologist R.D. Laing taught that people only change when the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing.  To tilt the balance, law firms could make “not changing” more painful, by establishing financial or other sanctions. Picture the 2012 Greek riots against economic reforms, even though the reforms are necessary to keep the entire Greek economy from collapsing. That provides a reasonable facsimile of the likely results in a law firm.

Reduce the Pain of Changing

The better option, then, is to find a way to take the pain out of changing. Legal Project Management software and Law Practice Management software are both supposed to make the process easier. Most of them make it harder first, even for tech-friendly lawyers.  As Woldow suggested, the interface must be designed to function the way a lawyer thinks.  It should also have multiple paths to accomplish the same task, since any law office administrator can vouch that attorneys don’t all think alike.

Is there any way to make the learning curve fun? Perhaps a contest between practice groups? Lawyers do like to beat somebody in a good competition. If those practice groups serve the same clients, the competition might actually ultimately foster more collaboration between the two groups. Dramatically improved client service could instill pride in their joint accomplishment and their ability to outshine other lawyers inside or outside the firm.

Is it possible to reward the early adopters with coveted projects? Let tech-savvy lawyers take on more leadership and coordination responsibility, even if that means reaching down into the younger ranks. As they use technology to respond more effectively to client needs, clients will gravitate to them.  Just as we saw with word processing and email, the resistant lawyers will be shamed into adapting or retiring because they have become irrelevant.

Opportunities for the Nimble

Many members of the legal profession are too wedded to tradition and focused on precedent to be innovative leaders. When our pocketbooks get hurt by an outside force that we can’t control, however, we suddenly get very interested in learning something new, even though it may be frustrating.

Until then, there are some great opportunities coming up for younger, geekier boutique firms to steal business from under the noses of the traditional big firms.  A few well -organized lawyers can get better results than a regiment of poorly coordinated ones, and far more cheaply.  That’s what clients are crying for. Perhaps those boutiques will come from agile visionary lawyers who mutiny from the ranks of the same big firms. By the time those slumbering giants wake up, some may be as far behind the curve as my elderly aunt.


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